Great Man Theory of History

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This topic contains 5 replies, has 4 voices, and was last updated by  Sqrjn 1 year, 5 months ago.

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  • #16513

    Sqrjn
    Participant

    I just finished show 168 and I want to challenge our host’s position on the “great man theory” (GMT) of history. Obviously it is correct that there is currently a broad consensus among professional historians that the GMT of history is inaccurate. But this consensus is a coalition formed against a straw man. Let’s define terms, GMT means that all of the significant events of history were shaped by the personal decisions of great/powerful men, decisions which they were fully free to make differently. Thus, the decisions of great men determined the course of history.” That’s straw man, no one really believes that.The people who attack this straw man GMT want to give greater focus to neglected aspects of history, including the impact of socio-economic factors and disempowered members of society. These people couch their position with statements about uncovering the biases of the past, but often fail to fully understand or acknowledge their own. Attacking the straw man GMT is in-group signaling. It is shorthand for communicating that the author is of a particularly politico-social point of view now in ascendency. Those anti-great man theorists are just as politically motivated as the Victorian’s and their desire to justify English empire. That is not to say that it is right or wrong, but it should be recognized for what it is and advocated for truthfully.This coalition goes too far, when one of its proponents denies the ability of individuals to affect the outcome of history. This is measurably false, if one believes in an objective reality. It is not a fallacy of moderation to say that the pendulum of focus has shifted too far towards a materialistic explanation of history and to suggest that the impact of individuals is now being under estimated. When people say they believe in GMT they are trying to communicate their belief that great men have a disproportionate impact on history. I would suggest the following as a defensible definition of GMT. GMT means ascribing to the belief that most significant events of history were strongly influenced by the decisions of a few individuals acting within the context of their time and place.Even Carlyle didn’t believe in the straw man version of GMT. First off, the man wasn’t really a historian; more of a self-professed poet/myth-maker. People who pull him out of a drawer to attack him as being bad at history should be seen from the start as somewhat dishonest in their reasoning. Carlyle never pretended to be a historian in the tradition of Tacitus or Gibbons. He was trying to be revolutionary and saw himself as such. I have muddled through his book The French Revolution, and I’d say that making a positive statement - Carlyle believed X on anything would be difficult, as he undoubtedly contradicts or undermines himself somewhere in his voluminous and ambiguous writings. However applying a negative is far easier. Carlyle certainly did not believe in the straw man GMT. It is far too simplistic and boring for Carlyle.Carlyle’s belief in heroes and hero-worship is almost Nietzschean in it’s inherent self-contradiction. Heroes are independent forces impacting history, but as heroes they must overcome the falsity and supposed baseness of their environment, if they are to be considered to have had an impact that is traceable to themselves. Their independence is confusingly dependent. One can argue about what exactly Thomas Carlyle meant when he said that “history is the biography of great men.” But that argument should be irrelevant. The straw man GMT is overly simplistic and no one outside of a grade school has ever believed it.Our host simply got carried away with his argumentation when he said that killing Hitler before he rose to power would not have altered history. Everyone can think of an example where an individual’s, at least partly unconstrained decision making, made a significant impact on the course of history. This includes Hitler, for example his insistence on an invasion of Russia over the reluctance of his economists and generals. As our host asked us to consider, what would have happened if Mercia had not collapsed? What if King Aethelbald had not decided to start sleeping with noble nuns, what if King Offa had not gone on a kin killing spree? Personal decisions made by individuals, who could have chosen to do something else (and who were probably strongly advised that they should) altered the course of history. I would also remind Jamie of his passion of Easy Company. Those were individuals making choices that affected history. The defensible GMT would apply equally to Kings and to foot soldiers. I was also troubled by the denial that Marxist theory had any impact in the anti-GMT position. Such a statement ignores the work of many historians who have applied Marxist theories in an analytic way to explain historical events using only economic theory, undermining GMT. I think what Jamie was saying or should have said was that you do not have to be a Marxist to disagree with the great man theory, which is obviously true. If you define GMT as applying to all significant events in history, it is obviously untrue. If you define GMT to suggest that individuals are fully free, you are obviously ignoring external factors which constrain their decision making. But it is a logically unsupported leap to conclude from these facts that the personal decisions of individuals do not alter the course of history. They clearly do. There is also a metaphysical aspect to GMT, which more difficult to define or address. To believe in great men is natural. To have faith in great men is to have faith in modernity and a better future for humanity. The belief that some men are superior and representative of what is best has had powerful effects across many cultures. It is not specific to the white male Victorians. People who believe in GMT believe that they gain by being able to trace their lives and labors in comparison to great men. Biographical histories become moral primers.  Maybe this what the anti-GMT crowd hates most. They dislike the morals of the western history and the fact that it has excluded so many marginalized people. I don’t have anything to say about this post-modern pessimism and desire for revisionist history. History has been used for agitprop for all of history. But I do think there is common ground to be found for people who believe that the past can be accurately understood objectively, as opposed to understood only subjectively or by adopting a relativist position. 

  • #20497

    anonymous
    Participant

    I think history is not truly knowable. Historical facts are knowable.  Hypotheticals have no role in history because they completely alter the weave of history.  Once you move into motivations they we can only presume.  That is one of the very interesting aspects of history.  Why does a historical figure make the choice they do, would I have made that choice?  This is one of the aspects of BHP I enjoy, Jamie's foray into the mind of the figures.  History is also about perspective.  What would the Vikings have to say?  Ask the Scots and  Welsh about this history and your version will be different.  History can be seen as summation of every single persons choices and actions. A tipping point is reached and major events occur.  Great men play a disproportionate role, whether they rose on their own or were products of their time /culture; once they attain a point of leverage or action then they influence events strongly.  I suppose one could generate a great idea theory of history where great ideas move history, for example: the worth of the individual or the belief in one God, freedom of worship or one man one vote.  People jump onto the ideas and we get to the tipping point again and something big happens.  Get great men together with great ideas then watch out.  We each choose how we see history.

  • #20498

    anonymous
    Participant

    That was quite a lot from Sqrjn, very interesting perspective.  What we like about the BHP, I think, is that our host makes it real, while always telling us what is “fact” and what is supposition. He also tells us the reason for one or the other, while also trying to tell us why decisions were made.  While there is GMT mixed in simply because there must be, Jamie creates a unique narrative that those of us who are not GM find instructive and entertaining.  So much so that we WANT to learn.  That is what teachers are supposed to do.  All to often this is lost to them, so that in the end, disinterested students check boxes on tests and immediately move on.As for the Hitler reference, I think Jamie was just making a point, not a literal assertion.  Hitler did not create the circumstances that allowed National Socialism to flourish, any more than he created anti-semitism in early 20th century Europe.  Had it not been Hitler's Nazi party it would have been any number of other opportunists, with results that could even have been worse.  It was the people's circumstance that created Hitler, not the other way around.  I think that was what Jamie meant.  Though I could be wrong.I also think the BHP fan simply likes that Jamie makes our ancestors real people we can relate to, cringe for or laugh with.  Thanks Jamie, you're worth a latte a month.

  • #20499

    Sqrjn
    Participant

    I'd be very interested in   1. What others believe the "Greatman Theory of History" means.  2. Whether others believe that individual humans have the capacity to make a meaningful or significant impact on the course of history as individuals, as opposed to only in the aggregate.Also hat tip to Brianp556 for pointing out that killing Hitler could have made the world worse, what a logical but pessimistic point of view!

  • #20500

    Raster
    Participant

    The way I see it, it is similar to the issued raised with the aphorism Churchill paraphrased when he said: Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.so I agree the TGM theory is first set up as a strawman, asserting that it posited all events if import were tied to individuals.But I further think that since the contributions by lesser men and by common individuals are demonstrably less.The simple fact is in most (most, not all) fields of human endeavor, there extreme outlier individuals who are responsible for most of the achievement and advances.Are they replaceable? Are Plato, Socrates, Pericles, Sophocles, Alexander, Caeser, Putative Jesus or more to the point, Paul, Genghis, Chaucer, Alfred, Luther, Michelangelo, Mozart, Marx, (as someone mentioned above) Hitler, Mao, Salk etc ect replaceable?  Some probably not, several probably yes. But replaceable with what? They are replaceable only with other extreme outlier individuals.Excelling and moving history (for good or bad) or culture is something certain very rare type does. Yes humanity, the human being, is a being of specialization, so we can assert a interdependency in any organized society. Someone had to farm Caesar's food. Some soldiers in Alexander's army had to run out and front and die. But those interchangeable were were not going to be Caesar or Alexander.

  • #20501

    Sqrjn
    Participant

    So our Host renewed his undergraduate parroting assessment of the anti-GMT straw man position in the delightful Q&A episode 200. Just to summarize his position in the hopes that he will correct me if I misunderstood any of his points.1. GMT means the character of great men is the sole factor affecting the course of human history.2. GMT means great men have magic like powers and their behavior is predetermined by genetics. 3. This theory is proven wrong if you accept the premise that killing hitler would not have prevented world war 2.4. Believing in GMT means believing that if Hitler had been born in Trinidad, then there would have been a Nazi Empire in Trinidad. 5. Great leaders are like surfers who ride a wave and chart their course on the wave, but do not control the wave or create the ocean.The metaphor in 5. appears to concede that individuals can and do have meaningful impacts on the course of history. I think that Carlyle would also have agreed with 5. To the extent that Jamie now admits that killing Hitler would have altered the course of history even if he believes that it would not necessarily have prevented some sort of global scale mid 20th century war similar to world war 1, then I am in complete agreement. Now he just needs to admit that the venerable Bede was one bad-ass surfer man.

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